our family’s private tragedy into a public spectacle.
T HE SIXTH CHAPTER OF M URDER BY THE B AY , more than any other, shined a spotlight on our home life. Entitled “A Tale of Two Sisters,” it focused in particular on the relationship between me and Lila. As I read the book that night, three weeks after its publication, I cringed at the picture Thorpe painted of the two of us, the idea that we could be so easily summed up.
One was tall and dark, the chapter began, the other petite and fair. One was a math prodigy, while the other was always lost in books.
Both of these sentences were basically true, although the language implied a kind of fairy-tale dichotomy that had not existed in real life. Lila did indeed have almost three inches on me, and she shared my father’s olive complexion and brown hair, while I had inherited the pale skin, red hair, and small stature of my mother’s Scotch-Irish family. Aside from those differences, though, we looked very much like sisters—a fact that people often commented on when they saw us together. We both had dark brown eyes, dimples, and rounded faces. We shared my mother’s mild cheekbones and my father’s straight, serious nose. And both of us had lucked out when it came to our mouths, a happy accident of genetics that combined my mother’s bow-shaped lips and my father’s full pout.
On the page facing the opening paragraph of chapter six, there was a photograph of me and Lila standing together on the day of her graduation from Berkeley. She looked academic and respectable in a cap and gown, her long hair fastened in a low ponytail. I fit the image of the carefree younger sister, with my low-cut sundress and sandals, hair falling loose around my shoulders. To further the contrast, Lila never wore more than a dab of mascara and a hint of pale lipstick, while I wore lipstick in rich shades of red. The photograph had originally been in color, so that when it was rendered in black-and-white on the cheap, porous paper, my lipstick appeared even darker. Readers might study the photograph and be utterly convinced that we were just as Thorpe had described us.
Thorpe went on to portray Lila as painfully shy, me as wildly sociable. But to anyone who actually knew us, it would have been clear that Thorpe had grossly exaggerated our differences for dramatic effect. Anything that might disrupt the narrative as he saw it was omitted: he never said that until Lila’s death, I had always been quite studious when it came to the classes I enjoyed. He never mentioned that Lila, while basically a loner, could be quite friendly with strangers.
I understood why. “It’s all about character,” he had said, in one of several lectures he gave on storytelling during my first class with him. Even though the class was called Contemporary American Literature, Thorpe took liberties with the syllabus, frequently requiring us to write short stories of our own. “Plot, setting, style—none of it means anything if you don’t have interesting characters, preferably in conflict with one another.” From his standpoint, I could see how the contrast of the shy, intellectual sister with the wild, artistic one might have made the book more entertaining. And that, I believed, was what he was after. It wasn’t accuracy that mattered in Thorpe’s mind, so much as the overall effect.
From page one, there was a “lean closer and I’ll tell you a creepy story” feel to Murder by the Bay. I had read and enjoyed many such books myself over the years. While I liked my Chekhov and Flaubert, my O. Henry and Pavese, I could always get into a well-written detective novel or a riveting true crime tale. In Cold Blood was one of my favorite books of nonfiction. The fact that Truman Capote had allegedly taken liberties with the truth had never really bothered me. Years after I first read the book in high school, I still had a clear picture in my mind of sixteen-year-old Nancy Clutter, “the town